by Andy Fotopoulos
My teaching career began September 4, 2001, in Staten Island, NY. Living in Queens at the time, I relied on nearly every form of public transportation New York City offered—subway, ferry, and train, not to mention long stretches of brisk walking–to make it to work.
The City was always a magical place to me, a depraved Disney World where the buildings seemed like stage sets, rattling subway cars screeched and careened like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, and all the characters cursed instead of singing, “It’s a Small World.” It was a wondrous backdrop, made even more so when the sky was as clear and the air as crisp as it was on September 11. A fellow teacher and I admired lower Manhattan from the back deck of the Staten Island Ferry as it chugged its way into and across the Harbor.
I asked my travel companion if he had ever been in the World Trade Center. He had not. I suggested we stop by there one day after work. I had been to Windows on the World for a wedding reception years before, and recalled the overwhelming awe taking in various vistas of the City, watching helicopters flying below my vantage point.
My lesson that day was on Shapes and Forms. On my morning planning period, I went into the Department Lounge and was met by the loud sobs coming from the Chorus teacher. She was standing, but bent over with her head on the table. She would raise up from time to time to let out a long wail, only to lower her head back down to the table in a series of heavy sobs. The two other teachers in the room sat in despondent silence.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
The Assistant Principal emerged from his office. “We’re under attack,” he said.
“The students?” I blurted. With a student body of over four thousand, they certainly had us outnumbered. Add to that their youth, and the advantage was unquestionably theirs.
“No,” he said, shaking his head. “Terrorists. They hit the World Trade Center. They hit the Pentagon . . . “
I sank down into a chair as he was speaking, his words drowned out in my mind by the same shock and sorrow already in the room. There was a helpless feeling that came from simply not knowing. We didn’t know if the attacks would keep coming, or what would be hit next.
Back in his office, the AP called out, “One of the towers fell!” prompting another long wail from the Chorus teacher. The next class period was starting soon. The AP leaned out from his doorway and advised us, “Don’t let the students know. Just go ahead with your lesson plans for today.” I thought to myself, really? Act as if everything’s normal? I took an empty back stairway to my next class. I inadvertently created a mental collection of images as I walked up. My shoes on each step. The handrail I gripped. The expanse of the landings halfway between floors. The light and the shadows cast. I thought of my parents. I wondered, what was I doing in New York? I should be in Florida.
Without any help from me, the students were soon well aware of what was taking place. Despite the school’s best effort for an accountable and orderly dismissal, a panicked exodus was underway. Parents and legal guardians flocked to the building, desperate to reconnect with their kids.
Once released from duty, the bulk of school employees left in nearly as chaotic a manner as the students. In the mad dash out, I somehow got word the Island had shut down. There was no Ferry service. The trains weren’t running. The bridges were closed.
I recognized an English teacher from one of the many new-teacher orientations I had attended. She looked distraught as she rushed out of the building. I knew she lived on the Island. I hurriedly followed her into the parking lot and asked if she could take me somewhere, anywhere where I could stay for the night, but was told no, no, she can’t, really, she can’t, she had to get to her parents . . .
If I was in any of the other boroughs, I could work my way home, or to a friend’s place. I knew no one in Staten Island. And I had no way out.
I could not move because I had no idea in which direction to move. I watched as the last of the staff and teachers trickled out and the parking lot emptied.
Ms. Rodriguez was one of the last teachers to leave. Though she was another Art teacher, I hadn’t yet formally met her.
“You look like a lost puppy,” she said as she was walking to her car.
I responded by just staring at her. She stopped.
“You’ve got nowhere to go, huh?” she said. A pause. Then, “C’mon, come with me.”
As I got in the car, she said, “We’re driving up to see it.”
We made it to the top of the Island and stared at the trail of smoke.
Ms. Rodriguez had a cellphone, and with it, I struggled to find a connection to anyone I could. A call to my parents didn’t go through. I got a hold of a friend who looked after my cats whenever I was out of town. He had just gotten home, having walked from Manhattan to Queens. Don’t worry, he said, he’d check on Heimlich and Squeaky for me. “Just get home safe when you can.” And finally, I was able to hear my mom’s voice.
Ms. Rodriguez set me up in a guest room with a futon that had a wide-screen TV hovering over it. Her little beagle Reggie, oblivious to the goings-on outside of his immediate scope, was so excited to have me as a guest, he peed on the bedsheets. His exuberance helped my mood. I spent far too many hours that night watching the replay of the buildings being hit, of the buildings falling, of the people running.
I had no clothes besides what I was wearing. The next day, Ms. Rodriguez took me shopping to patch together a wardrobe and gather other sundry items for my indeterminate stay. She made arroz con pollo. The next night, steak. We talked art and teaching and we shared stories of college and family and past jobs. While the news broadcast how people weren’t eating or sleeping well, I tried to reconcile my guilt; I was eating like a king. Without a lengthy commute, I was able to get enough sleep.
When the school first reopened, very few students showed up. The class time was marked by long periods of silence and sudden moments when kids shared what they knew or heard, what they saw and felt about what had taken place. As more students returned on subsequent days, they channeled their emotions into helping those in need. Drives were quickly organized and conducted to gather supplies to assist first responders. As a new teacher, I learned what students were made of.
Four days after the attacks, I finally made it back to Queens. It was courtesy of the fellow traveler to whom I suggested, on the early-morning Ferry ride of September 11, we go to the World Trade Center. He had been staying with a cousin on Staten Island. He found me by the teacher mailboxes that Friday. He told me he had a car and that we could go home.
The following week, I began again the journey of multifarious modes of public transportation to and from the school. Lower Manhattan looked like a war zone. Dust and debris covered the ground and crept up the sides of buildings. The streets were desolate. The military kept watch in full gear. I was introduced to the infamous smell borne from the tragedy.
The crazy Disneyesque ride of New York City had shut down for repair. And yet, I knew I was lucky. All my friends were accounted for. All were, for the most part, okay. I still had my parents. I had a new best friend in Ms. Rodriguez.
Twenty years ago, there were students in my classroom who lost parents and relatives in those towers. They grieved openly and helped those who were directly affected. Today, my students learn about 9/11 in history lessons. Many are connected to 9/11 through parents who served their country in response to the events of that day. My students today would rise to the occasion should their mettle be tested in a similar way. I saw it from the time I started teaching, and it is yet another thing I will never forget.